Victims of domestic abuse potentially face being cross-examined by their alleged attackers as a result of legal aid restrictions, according to a report by Citizens Advice.
Victims of domestic abuse: struggling for support?, shows that six in 10 advisers found the changes regarding legal aid since April 2013 have affected the help they have been able to give domestic abuse clients.
Of those who had been affected by the legal aid change, around a fifth reported they could no longer help as many domestic abuse clients as before.
A similar proportion found most domestic abuse clients were unable to afford required contributions when offered legal aid, resulting in some representing themselves in court. This resulted in an ‘unacceptable’ situation where a victim of domestic abuse potentially faced being cross-examined by the alleged perpetrator.
Even in cases where the victim can provide evidence required for legal aid, many advisers recount that clients were required to pay substantial additional fees due to their assets or income.
‘In many cases, the victim is trapped in a catch-22 situation unable to access their assets because of domestic abuse, but unable to resolve the situation with their abuser without expensive legal consultation and representation.’
Citizens Advice called on the Ministry of Justice to revise evidence requirements and financial contributions for legal aid. Evidence requirements must be such that individuals suffering any type of abuse, without access to finance, can access legal aid, it said.
The report states: ‘More thought needs to be given to the financial thresholds in the cases of joint-assets and potentially fluctuating income across an insecure relationship. In cases in which legal aid has been granted, additional fees must not be prohibitively high.’
The MoJ said the government was ‘exceptionally clear’ that victims of domestic violence should get legal aid wherever they needed it to help break free from an abusive relationship.
An MoJ spokesperson said: ‘That is why we listened carefully to concerns and made changes to expand the types of evidence that could be used to access legal aid.’
The ministry said since the reforms were introduced thousands of people had successfully applied for legal aid where domestic violence is involved. ‘However, we have always said we will keep the new system under review – and our door is always open to those with evidence about concerns.
‘Citizens Advice have not contacted the department about this report, but if they submit it to us we will consider it carefully.’
Earlier this month charity Rights of Women lodged an appeal – supported by the Law Society – against the High Court’s backing of reforms which have the effect of restricting access to legal aid for victims of domestic violence.
The High Court had rejected a challenge, brought by the Public Law Project on behalf of Rights of Women, and supported by the Society, to rules introduced in April 2013 requiring victims of domestic violence to provide a prescribed form of evidence in order to apply for family law legal aid.
Some of the forms of evidence are subject to a 24-month time limit, despite the fact that perpetrators may remain a lifelong threat.